Studying new policies, Metro's Construction Career Pathways project is at its halfway point

Some construction projects have diversity requirements — but does reaching a quota actually help people of color and women come up in their skilled trades career? Oregon Metro set up a project to discover what the numbers in Portland actually are, and what policies could be better.

The diversity requirement placed on certain projects is an effort to include women and people of color's access to careers in the skilled trades. While some of them say they still struggle to find as much work as privileged workers, some employers also say they can't find qualified minorities.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: FILE PHOTO - Mayor Ted Wheeler and Andrew Colas, president of Colas Construction, chat it up at the Beatrice Morrow Groundbreaking last Spring. Colas, a certified minority-owned firm, recently won the Oregon Convention Center renovation contract.

While this issue has been tracked into the workforce pipeline and unfair behaviors have surfaced, such as projects only trying to meet the minimum diversity requirement and then firing their token workers before they can find a mentor or qualify for apprenticeships or journey-levels, there hasn't been a consensus on the actual numbers. Is there a dearth or surplus of women and people of color in the skilled trades, in terms of access to the work that is happening?

There is an anticipated need for 15,000 new construction jobs in the next 10 years at a time when 20 percent of the region's workforce is nearing retirement age, according to Metro.

OCC Hyatt Hotel

Metro launched the Construction Career Pathways Project last summer amid growing concerns about the lack of diversity in the construction trades as the $244 million Hyatt Regency Hotel at the Oregon Convention Center moved toward its groundbreaking.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: FILE PHOTO - A rendering of the OCC Hyatt Hotel. Architects: Ankrom Moisan Architects, ESG Architects, Mayer/Reed. General contractor: Mortenson Construction.

Stephanie Soden, chief of staff for Metro President Tom Hughes, has been working on this project since its inception. She and Fortney worked together on Metro's hiring program that was then focused on its venues — the Convention Center, Portland'5 Centers for the Arts and the Expo Center.

"This is a project that's one of (Metro Pres. Hughes's) priority projects, as was the Convention Center Hotel development," Soden said.

The project is currently owned by Mortenson Development and will be sold to the Hyatt Hotels Corporationg upon completion. Metro is a development partner and investor.

"We had hard conversations with Metro: how can we really impact this?" Soden said. "We don't do a lot of construction projects. We have a hotel we're investing in, we are good at bringing people from across the region to talk about ideas and get some consensus around the problems."

Metro spoke with other jurisdictions on how to solve this, as well as with stakeholders in the private sector.Soden

"We had some real, honest conversations with members of the community, specifically North and Northeast Portland community leaders who have been impacted by construction of the Convention Center and have vested interest in how development continues in the area," Soden said. "They really encouraged us to think outside the box, not try to achieve a certain thing or contracting goals for one construction project, but look at ways government as a whole can improve the hiring processes so we make a meaningful difference for women and people of color."

The dropout numbers for women and people of color is very high because there isn't a system that support someone's career path from pre-apprenticeships through journey-levels.

"We heard over and over, someone might get hired for a specific construction projects and the targets for that project would be met, and then that person's let go," Soden said. "It's very hard to sustain a career or progress through an apprenticeship training if you're not consistently employed over a series of projects."


The Construction Career Pathways Project is convening stakeholders at a regional level to learn more about the problem and identify strategies to provide reliable career pathways from pre-apprentice to journey level for people of color and women in the trades.

David Fortney is the manager of the project at Metro.

"Historically, people of color and women have been left out (of the economy) and we are seeing a lot of median-income growth across different demographics pop up across our region, yet a lot of people of color and women aren't experiencing those same benefits," Fortney said.

Over the last 18 months, Fortney has met with hundreds of individuals across the region.

"We're seeing pretty high drop-off rates for people of color and women as they work through apprenticeships," Fortney said. Fortney

In partnership with public agencies and the regional workforce investment board, Metro is collaborating with community-based organizations and labor groups and engaging industry stakeholders throughout the project to accomplish shared goals.

"Here at Metro we're really focused on providing opportunities for people of color and women to participate in our region's growth," Fortney said. Metro's project includes conducting a comprehensive market study to build a shared understanding of opportunities and challenges facing people of color and women in the construction trades, and convene stakeholders to develop an agreed-upon set of tools and policies for adoption by government partners.

"For too long, people of color and women have been left out and not given the same opportunities to get ahead and make a career in the construction trades," Fortney said. "We feel we have a big opportunity right now in the high wage, high growth construction industry to make a difference in our community. Through the Construction Pathway project, we're aiming to address these projects and access to high-wage jobs."

The project's goals include creating a roadmap for government that will support and grow a diverse construction workforce, gain efficiencies in public construction projects and promote equitable growth in the region's economy.

Fortney counts the sheer level of support from public and private partners as a major milestone.

"It's taken months to build the case for Metro to lead this effort and convene our public and private partners," Fortney said.


The scope of the project has six steps:

  • Assessing the existing construction workforce in place today by trade, race and gender across Metro's jurisdiction
  • Assessing future demand for the construction workforce in the Portland metro area over the next five years
  • Determining the capacity of existing training programs to meet the projected demands and identify existing barriers
  • Quantifying the projected surplus or deficit between available and needed workforce
  • Researching national examples of best practices in rapidly increasing diversity enrollment and matriculation in apprenticeships and training programs, and
  • Recommending requirements to achieving success in construction workforce equity and diversity.
  • The final report is expected in January 2018.

    "Simultaneously, our research team is working on section three, the training or capacity of our training organization in the region," Fortney said. "It's a lot of data, both qualitative and quantitative."

    One of Metro's close partners is Worksystems, Inc., which is convening its industry and labor communities through its Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative (CWWC).

    "We see Worksystems as bringing labor and industry along very closely, with Metro bringing the community and government along," Fortney said.

    Worksystems' reports show that within the Portland-Vancouver area, the construction sector has 60,000 jobs and a payroll of $3.3 billion, accounting for 6 percent of the greater Portland region's private-sector employment and 7 percent of total payroll. The construction sector contributed approximately $5.3 billion to the metro area's Gross Domestic Product in 2014.

    "This is such an opportunity because the construction industry is so effective at giving good training and then sending them on to a career pathway where they can afford a mortgage, daycare and transportation," Soden said. "Very few industries exist like that anymore, and construction capitalizes on it."PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: FILE PHOTO - Women and people of color in the trades are often checkerboarded around to different projects in order to meet the projects quotas: however, doing so makes it hard for them to earn enough experience to complete apprenticeships or journey-levels. Shown: Stephanie Ryznar, pile-driver, worked on the new Sellwood Bridge.

    The market study will measure a snapshot of the industry right now, and what projects are out there over a five- and 10-year forecast.

    "We and other jurisdictions have an assumption that the numbers don't look great, and there are a lot of projects coming along and demands will be higher than supply in terms of people of color and women," Soden said. "But we don't know that for sure — the market study will show that, creating a baseline of what we have now and projects coming in the future."

    Overall, the project has been driven by the region's interest in creating a support system that efficiently promotes Oregon's economy.

    "We're getting a much better idea of some of those tools and policies that will be on the table for discussion in the next couple of months, if not years, with public partners that's been the challenges — figuring out what we can adopt here in our region," Fortney said.

    By Jules Rogers
    Reporter, The Business Tribune
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